8. Neoliberalism as Terrorism; or State of Disaster Exceptionalism
The connections between the hegemonic exercise of geopolitical power, the biopolitics of bare life and governmentality, and the free market doctrine of neoliberalism were nowhere more apparent than in the first round of presidential debates held on September 26, 2008. Barack Obama brought the biopolitics of neoliberalism into relief when he spoke about how the McCain health care plan was based on the “notion that the market can always solve everything and that the less regulation we have, the better off we’re going to be” (CNN 9). Obama’s point was well taken, but what was missing was recognition of the fact that the idea that the market can solve all problems is necessarily linked to the idea that the United States can solve the problems of all other states. Both positions depend on the same internal logic, the same forms of exception, and the same exercise of sovereign power.
This is why the discussion during the debate about healthcare in the US has to be read in relation to McCain’s claims about US foreign policy. In another moment in the debate, McCain critiqued Obama’s understanding of Central Asian politics: “I don’t think that Senator Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power. Everybody who was around then and had been there and knew about it knew that it was a failed state” (n.p.). Though Pakistan was wrestling with problems—like tensions with India and serious poverty when Musharraf took power in an 1999 coup—it had a democratically elected government and was far from being what could be described as a “failed state”—that is, a country in social and economic collapse where the government no longer exercises authority. How does it become possible for a US senator/presidential candidate to so glibly define Pakistan in that way? Who decides when a state has failed? Put differently, who is the “everyone” that knew that democratic Pakistan was a failed state? Surely not the Pakistanis, but also not Obama and not many US citizens either.
Thus, when McCain defended his free-market based economic policy or when he casually referred to democratic pre-Musharraf Pakistan as a “failed state” that “everyone knew about,” he was demonstrating Carl Schmitt’s notion of the sovereign who can decide the exception, who can make decisions precisely because he is sovereign, and whose rule is based on the inevitable absence of rules. For Schmitt, the only rule is that of the sovereign who alone determines a state’s friends or enemies, even in those cases when the enemies are the state’s own inhabitants themselves. In fact, one of the key arguments that I will make in this essay is that the contemporary neoliberal version of biopolitics requires an appreciation of how the disenfranchised within the US are integrally linked to extra-national groups, whether these are stateless enemy combatants or whether they are entire nations, as in the case of Pakistan.
Prior to the events of 9/11/2001, much US Americanist research focused on identity issues in a context of nationalism and critiques of nationalism. Against these trends, scholars like Donald Pease and Amy Kaplan called for moving away from the ontological framework of nationalisms and alternatives to nationalism because of their over-investment in identity markers.  They suggest, in contrast, that it is time to reconsider more seriously the role of the state. Pease’s analysis of Ground Zero and Kaplan’s research on Guantanamo, for example, argue that any effort to reframe identity struggles requires attention to the violent repressive tactics of the US state. Taking my cue from this line of critical work, I argue here that the next challenge for those of us interested in the relationship between national identities, political possibilities, and global power networks concerns understanding the practices, pedagogies, and public image of the state post 9/11.
Suggesting this line of work, though, for US academics requires further attending to the troubled context for engaging in lines of inquiry that challenge the pervasive turn away from more politically incisive critique that has followed in the wake of 9/11. Arguably, the turn to identity-based critique where scholars examine identity markers as the source for problems of disenfranchisement as opposed to examining political and economic structures—like capital, class, and the state—has its origins well before 9/11. One could suggest that such shifts were a function of the sorts of lines of inquiry that emerged in the 70s and 80s that derived from deconstruction’s emphasis on negative critique and distrust of organizing concepts in combination with poststructuralism’s focus on language and signs as sources of power. Even though these critical trends developed in response to an urge to challenge oppressive power structures, when they merged with a suspicion of any efforts to find a common ground or collective good, they often resulted in positions that were wary of proffering alternatives. As Masao Miyoshi notes in his critique of the development of US humanities-based research, US scholars share “an undeniable common proclivity…to fundamentally reject such totalizing concepts as humanity, civilization, history, and justice, and such subtotalities as a region, a nation, a locality, or even any smallest group” (41). This emphasis on difference without reference ultimately strips criticism of its context and makes any analysis of state structures difficult to sustain.
These trends then combined with the self-censorship and weak, if not totally bland, forms of critical engagement that followed from the academic witch hunts launched by the post 9/11 assaults on higher education.  As Henry Giroux notes in The University in Chains, the post 9/11 assaults on higher education by various right-wing constituencies were met all too often by apathy on the part of progressive academics who were either too afraid or too overwhelmed to offer any sort of sustained resistance. According to Giroux, “given the seriousness of the current attack on higher education by an alliance of diverse right-wing forces, it is difficult to understand why the majority of liberals, progressives, and left-oriented educators has become relatively silent or tacit apologists in the face of the assault” (5). In this context, then, it comes as little surprise that there has been relatively little attention to the way that 9/11 facilitated a shift in state power, where democratic institutions entered into a permanent state of exception and citizens were indefinitely denied their rights. But, as I will argue here, attention to the connections between neoliberalism’s need to push the state to defend the rights of the market over the rights of the citizen and the war on terror’s restructuring of rights both within the US and across nations is a much-needed if not essential line of work for any scholar committed to restoring the democratic possibilities of higher education. One of the greatest threats to progressive education in the US today comes from the blind acceptance of corporate mentalities, the incorporation of militaristic solutions to conflict, and the demonization of other cultures, all of which combine to further a state of terror.edu.
The state of exception caused by the war on terror and the corporate state of neoliberalism have combined to radically alter civic identities on US soil and abroad. In one example, the shared criminalization of the immigrant, the refugee, and the disaster victim points to new ways that identities have been reconfigured as hostile to “freedom,” where “freedom” refers to the sovereign free market rather than to individual rights. After mapping the theoretical implications of linking neoliberalism with the biopolitics of bare life, the first part of this essay traces this new US state, what I am describing as “The Neoliberal State of Disaster Exceptionalism.” I then examine this transformation in the particular context of US-Afghan relations, where I analyze the dialectics between sovereign states and what I call “bare” states, i.e., states that are included in the geopolitical world system by virtue of their exclusion. Unlike the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan has from the outset been described as an effort to rescue a failed state from terrorist influences. Any disasters caused by the US invasion are always justified by the previously existing Afghan state of disaster. Reading both mainstream media accounts of the US attacks on Afghanistan post 9/11 and fictional efforts to narrate Afghanistan (particularly the novel The Kite Runner and the film Charlie Wilson’s War), I argue that the representation of Afghanistan and of US-Afghan relations both reveals and conceals the intersections between neoliberalism, terrorism, and the state of exception.
Much of my argument rests on the idea that the post 9/11 state requires attention to a new biopolitical era—one that links the state of exception with the free market state of neoliberalism. While a number of scholars have taken up post 9/11 biopolitics and a number of others have focused on the effects of neoliberalism, few have claimed that these two structuring systems are necessarily linked. Naomi Klein brings some of these threads together in her study of disaster capitalism, arguing that neoliberalism thrives on disaster and shock to radically alter civic structures and state roles.  Henry Giroux and Zygmunt Bauman have also claimed that neoliberalism brings with it a specific set of biopolitical practices that radically alter the notion of the citizen and the public sphere.  What these scholars have shown is that there is a symbiotic convergence between neoliberal free market capitalism, which understands citizens as consumers or as disposable waste, and an emergency state, which increasingly abrogates the rights of entire populations in the name of homeland security. Regardless of whether the punishing force is the market or the permanent state of war, the result is an onslaught on rights, both civic and corporal.
These new identity formations created by the post 9/11 US state, though, also rely on earlier paradigms, most significantly that of US exceptionalism and that of bare life. “American” exceptionalism depends on the longstanding belief that the United States differs qualitatively from other developed nations—a difference that makes it possible, for instance, for the US to be critical of British or Russian/Soviet imperialism but not its own. That the US is superior to developing or undeveloped nations is taken for granted. Thus the bombing of civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan is justified, whereas the terrorist bombings of US civilians are not. What is of particular interest in the current context is the link between US exceptionalism and bare life. Giorgio Agamben’s theory of bare life claims that state power has always assumed power over life, deciding who will receive the rights of the citizen and who will not. Bare life is that life which is included in the state by virtue of its exclusion from political life. It is life that can be killed with impunity because it is a life without rights. Agamben points out that “if anything characterizes modern democracy over classical democracy…it is that modern democracy presents itself from the beginning as a vindication and liberation of [bare life]” (Homo Sacer 9). But the rights of the citizen in the modern state still face two problems: first, sovereign power always creates bare life, even in modernity, and, second, the increasing commonality of the state of exception, or the suspension of law in order to establish rule, makes it possible for all citizens to be immediately rendered bare life, to be stripped of their rights. According to Agamben, the US entered a state of exception shortly after the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks when it enacted a series of laws that governed living beings by means of the suspension of law. But this retraction of rights was read in keeping with US exceptionalism as fundamentally different from the suspension of rights as practiced by other states. So, a key feature that affects how we think of this problem is the way that the US’s dominant narrative as a free, democratic nation that is globally exceptional frustrates any counter claims that suggest that, in contrast, the US is like all other states that have limited citizen’s rights as a means of preserving power. By making the case of the US’s suspension of rights incomparable, and therefore exceptional, the dominant narrative of US power then is able to suggest that the US remains in a unique position, as a consequence of its exceptional democracy, to determine the fate of other states.
If US exceptionalism is a geopolitical policy and bare life refers to the rights of the being within the borders of a particular state, what happens when these spheres can no longer be kept separate? When what a state does within its borders necessarily leaks to the global sphere and vice versa? As a way of interrogating the geopolitical implications of these mutual contaminations, it is first necessary to consider the global implications and ideologies that derive from Agamben’s theories of the state of exception and bare life. Considered thusly, it becomes clear that the US state of exception requires American exceptionalism and depends not just on bare life but also on bare states, that is, on the designation of states that are included in the world order solely by the form of their exclusion. In addition to rethinking the false binary of internal and external state policies, a further part of my argument is that it is essential to recognize the symbiosis between free market capitalism and the perpetual state of exception.
Agamben’s focus on the force of law misses an opportunity to elaborate on the force of capitalism—a word that never appears, for instance, in his State of Exception. Unchecked free market capitalism requires the state of exception since the deregulation of the market necessitates the destruction of the public sphere and the permanent suspension of the rights of the citizen. As mentioned earlier, these ideas are latently developed in Naomi Klein’s theory of disaster capitalism. Klein argues that the blank slate caused by disaster allows for massive transformations in state policy. She links megadisasters—wars, massive recessions, and natural disasters—with superprofits. The disaster is the event that sanctions an abrupt shift in the function of the state, one which always brings with it a loss of rights because the state protects capital rather than people, at the same time that it signals an opportunity for neoliberal practices. A further key component of Klein’s theories of neoliberalism is her attention to the biopolitics of shock, where shock affects not just markets but bodies, a move that allows her to link torture and a pervasive culture of fear with the functioning of the free market. She draws a direct line between the US’s research into psychological military operations, torture tactics, and the fostering of mass hysteria after major disasters and argues that these biopolitical practices pave the way for societies to willingly cede rights and dignity in favor of so called security and stability. What Klein’s theory lacks, though, is more attention to the ideological forces that make these shifts possible, especially the history of US exceptionalism, in addition to orientalism and its sister stereotypes. Moreover, just as Agamben misses capitalism as a biopolitical force, Klein misses the biopolitics of governmentality. My claim is that the current forms of state power require that we put these theories into dialogue.
The theorist who has most worked on establishing these links more overtly is Henry Giroux, who considers neoliberalism as a form of public pedagogy—a hegemonic force that teaches the public to accept unacceptable social practices. Giroux, along with Pierre Bourdieu, has been one of the foremost theorists of the ideology and public pedagogy of neoliberal practices. As Giroux explains it: “What is often ignored by theorists who analyze the rise of neoliberalism in the United States is that it is not only a system of economic power relations but also a political project, intent on producing new forms of subjectivity and sanctioning particular modes of conduct” (Youth in a Suspect Society 7–8). In recent years, a number of theorists (i.e., Agamben, Hardt and Negri, Mbembe) have also begun to expand on Michel Foucault’s theory of biopolitics—the theory of how states govern via the regulation of human life. But Giroux is one of the few scholars to develop a theory of neoliberal biopolitics, and he is the only one to study how these practices have been directly influenced by the post 9/11 militarization of the US security state. The book that most explores these links is Beyond the Terror of Neoliberalism. There, Giroux writes: “[Neoliberalism’s] supporting political culture and pedagogical practices also put into play a social universe and cultural landscape that sustain a particularly barbaric notion of authoritarianism, set in motion under the combined power of a religious and market fundamentalism and anti-terrorism laws that suspend civil liberties, incarcerate disposable populations, and provide the security forces necessary for capital to destroy those spaces where democracy can be nourished” (xxiii). For Giroux, “Democratic politics is increasingly depoliticized by the intersection of a free-market fundamentalism and an escalating militarism” that not only attacks civil liberties within the United States but also designates entire populations outside of the United States as either disposable or controllable (xx).
US-Afghan relations post-9/11 offer a tragic, yet paradigmatic, example of this new biopolitical era. Unlike the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan has from the outset been described as an effort to rescue a failed state. While much time has been spent, especially on the part of Noam Chomsky and Jacques Derrida, deconstructing the definitions and tracing the auto-referentiality of terms like “failed states” and “rogue states,” it seems to me that the more relevant way of thinking about these issues is through the dialectic of what I call the bare state and the sovereign state. If the sovereign has the ability to decide which lives can be killed due to the suspension of the force of law, then it follows that the sovereign state, that is, the state that rules all other states, decides which states will be bare states. The sovereign state imposes the rules that determine the exception. Bare states are those that can be destroyed or manipulated with impunity since they are only included in the world system by their exclusion, by the assumption that they have no rights to self-govern. The destruction of the bare state by the sovereign state has no legal ramifications since the bare state has no rights. The focus on the developed world in the theories of Schmitt and then also in Agamben ignores the problem of states where the sovereignty of the sovereign is always in question. In a sense, imperialism is the state of exception writ large, and when states do emerge as a consequence of postcolonial independence, that independence is akin to bare independence: it is an independence that exists only at the discretion of the sovereign state.
Afghanistan is a particularly complex case because it is best described as a quasi-postcolonial state. While it has resisted foreign rule, it has had plenty of foreign interference. Located at a geographical crossroads, it is a state that came into existence in order to resist the imperial designs of the British and Russian Great Game in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And, as is commonly the case with postcolonial states, the Afghan state was carved across ethnic lines and according to imperially imposed geographic boundaries. The key issue, however, is that states like Afghanistan are encouraged by sovereign states to operate in ways that undermine the rights of their citizens so as to justify their continued exclusion from geopolitical state rights. As Rudyard Kipling puts it in his story of Afghanistan, “The Man Who Would Be King,” “nobody cares a straw for the internal administration of Native States so long as oppression and crime are kept within decent limits, and the ruler is not drugged, drunk, or diseased from one end of the year to another. They are the dark places of the earth, full of unimaginable cruelty” (247). Here orientalism combines with the idea of the bare state. Not only is it assumed that this is a state which needs oversight and that this is a state where citizens will have few rights, if any, but it is also assumed that the so-called sovereign of the bare state is genetically incapable of just rule.
The problem for bare states in the era of neoliberalism is not only their lack of rights within the world system but also the fact that the deregulative ideologies that buttress the sovereign state/bare state dialectic are linked to the needs of market fundamentalism. Arguably, neoliberalism is simply the most recent phase of capitalism, the one that most visibly exposes the rule of the market as the only rule that capitalism will recognize. The deregulation required by neoliberals is closely linked to the lack of rights of bare life. Under neoliberalism, people are products and states protect the rights of corporations rather than of citizens. Thus, when neoliberalism joins the imperialist bare state/sovereign state structure, the result is that the only rules are that there are no rules except those articulated by the sovereign system of capital. Of course, in the case of Afghanistan, the idea that the area and its inhabitants represented nothing more than products to be exchanged or bodies to be regulated had a long history that pre-dated the US’ involvement there.
These ideas of a barbaric land occupied by barbaric people would re-emerge with particular force in representations of Afghanistan after 9/11.  Much was heard of the brutality of Taliban rule, of the plight of Afghan women, and of the tenacious spirit of the Afghan warrior who had managed to defend his country from foreign rule for more than 2,000 years. The most frequently cited resource was that of Rudyard Kipling, and Corinne Fowler writes that “during the 2001 conflict, references to Kipling were legion” (49). For instance, while in Peshawar at the American club, British journalist Ben Macintyre wrote that the spies, arms dealers, aid workers, mercenaries, and journalists that congregated there all had one thing in common: they all read Kipling as they lived out their “romantic fantasies.” “The works of Rudyard Kipling were required reading, for Britain’s bard of imperialism captured the wilderness and the wonder of the North-West Frontier like no other writer, before or since” (Macintyre, The Man Who Would Be King 4). Kipling’s works were cited throughout media reports in the days following 9/11 as though they provided some deep insight into the mystery of Afghanistan and its neighboring countries. News reports carried multiple references from his short story “The Man Who Would Be King” and from his poem “The Young British Soldier” that portrays Afghans (including women) as particularly brutal:
The turn to Kipling may very well have made sense as the United States and Britain contemplated overt military action in a country with a reputation for rebelling superior military force. Not only had the Brits suffered military losses there three times (1842, 1841, 1919), but the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan from 1979–89 arguably led to the end of the Soviet Union. Perhaps some of Kipling’s insights into these conflicts could serve as useful cautions. Nevertheless, the repeated use of Kipling as a source of knowledge about Afghanistan points to the persistence of orientalism in the post 9/11 context.
Edward Said suggests that one of the key features of orientalist thinking is the assumed fact that there is a fundamental distinction between “Orient” and “Occident.” But this distinction is not one of simple difference; it is one of hierarchy. This strategy means that, regardless of the relationship between West and East, the West always retains “positional superiority” (7). This positional superiority though holds material force when we link this idea to the concept of the sovereign state that determines the fate of the bare state, bringing with it a global biopolitics that not only separates categories of humanity within nations but across them as well. Thus, when US Navy Seal Marc Luttrell describes his mission to Afghanistan as “payback time for the World Trade Center,” he is a “special breed of warrior,” whereas his enemy is described as “lawless,” “wild mountain men” (9, 6, 10, 13). Or when Afghans rebel against foreign invasion, they are described as dangerous and unpredictable, but when Western countries defend themselves from foreign invasion, they are described as righteous and valiant. Not only does such thinking depend on an absolute division between East and West, where the West is always understood as superior to the East, but it also requires that East and West be understood as static entities that do not significantly change over time and that do not have substantial variations within themselves. Such practices meant that it remained possible after 9/11 to assume that Kipling’s imperialist view of the barbarous nature of Afghanistan was still largely true, that little had changed; and they depended on ignoring Kipling’s own context of writing as one that referred to a specific historical moment that carried particular worldviews. The third key feature of orientalism relevant for a discussion of the bare state is that it depends on ideas and not simply on the use of military and political power to remain in force. When orientalist statements are made in the Western media about Afghanistan, such statements themselves serve to strengthen structures of authority that are not only material but also hegemonic. Thus, Kipling’s legacy was continued in Western media representations of Operation Enduring Freedom not simply through references to his works, but also through the mere practice of producing truth claims about Afghanistan, the nature of the Afghan people, and their relationship to the West—truth claims that inevitably reinforced the historical legacy of occident versus orient.
For obvious reasons, post-9/11 US coverage did not replicate the British media’s imperialist anxieties, but that did not deter US journalists from falling into a pattern of repeatedly rehearsing a series of traits that indelibly marked Afghanistan as a threat to Western ways of life. Mahmood Mamdani refers to these practices as “culture talk.” Building on Edward Said’s concept of orientalism, contemporary “culture talk” takes its cues from works like Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and understands contemporary conflicts in cultural rather than political terms. Mamdani explains that “It is no longer the market (capitalism), nor the state (democracy), but culture (modernity) that is said to be the dividing line between those in favor of a peaceful, civic existence and those inclined to terror” (18). The key to “culture talk” is the assumption that different cultures have different essences, and it requires that cultures be understood outside of their historical and political context. In the West, post-9/11 “culture talk” meant understanding the crisis in Afghanistan as one that was culturally endemic, that of a failure to become civilized rather than as a consequence of specific historical and political developments. As a result, post 9/11 Afghan-related reporting often included references to the rise of fundamentalist Islam in the country but rarely acknowledged the role played in Afghanistan by Saudi Arabia’s and Pakistan’s intelligence agencies (the GID and ISI) who worked during the Soviet era along with the CIA in helping train and fund the Afghan rebels who would later become the Taliban.
Instead of contextually and historically specific reporting, much news relied on a series of orientalist, culturalist stereotypes of Afghanistan that reinforced a biopolitics of Afghan disposability. One ongoing and persistent feature of media coverage referred to the warlike nature of Afghans and to the fact that Afghans “have traditionally greeted outside armies with hostility” (“War without Illusions” 22). Fowler also notes that “a striking feature of news media coverage of the 2001 bombing campaign” depicted Afghanistan as “contemporaneous with medieval Europe”—a condition that suggested the almost total lack of anything the West would call “civilization” in the nation (64). Another trope of the media was the reference to the lack of national unity in a country prone to tribalism and ethnic conflict. Ross Benson writes, for instance, that “each ethnic group is distrustful of the other and in Afghanistan distrust is cause enough for murder” (11). Linked to descriptions of the people as barbarous, uncivilized, pre-modern, and dangerous, the physical geography was described as equally treacherous, sometimes due to the ominous mountains and desserts and sometimes due to the wreckage left behind by the remnants of the Soviet era.  All of these practices combine, then, to offer a cultural logic to treating Afghanistan as a bare state and to characterizing Afghans as undeserving of self-determination.
As a counterforce to much mass media reporting of the conflict, a series of cultural texts attempted to offer an alternative view. Bringing public attention to another side of the story was one of the motives behind Mike Nichols’ film Charlie Wilson’s War—a quasi-farce about the US’ involvement in exacerbating the conflict during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan from 1979–89, that was produced by Participant Productions, a company dedicated to “entertainment that inspires and compels social change.” While Nichols does not do enough to link the so-called “freedom fighters” of the Soviet conflict with the “barbaric” mujahedeen of the post 9/11 moment, the strength of his film is its narrative of US exceptionalism’s use of Afghanistan as a bare state. The film traces the unlikely story of Charlie Wilson, a playboy Texas Congressman, who singlehandedly raised the budget for the covert operations in Afghanistan from 35 million dollars in 1982 to 600 million in 1987. Wilson’s interest in Afghanistan stems from the twin desires to “kill Russians” and to help the Afghans, whom he meets for the first time in a devastating scene in a Pakistani refugee camp. The film does an excellent job of pointing out the contradictions of US exceptionalism that link humanitarian aid with a devastating proxy war. Nichols also underscores the idea of Afghanistan as a bare state when he has a CIA member refer to it as “barely a country”—a move that links a state with no rights in the global system to a state that lacks the infrastructure of modernity. One example of this combined bareness is a scene where characters complain about how Afghanistan’s lack of roads makes it less convenient for them to provide anti-Soviet forces with weapons.
Telling this story in the context of the US’ ongoing overt war with Afghanistan, where thousands of Afghan civilians have died, where Afghans constitute the largest refugee population worldwide, and where only 6 percent of the country even had intermittent electricity in 2004, goes a long way to correcting the myths and misinformation about the state of Afghanistan (Jones 214). But the film has a few blind spots, not the least of which is the lack of voice given to Afghans themselves who are almost always screened from a distance, often in scenes that show them being gunned down by Soviets, a practice that tends to justify the US’ role in the covert war by reinforcing orientalist stereotypes of Afghans as incomprehensible others who needed to be rescued by the US.
In contrast to Charlie Wilson’s War, putting a human face on Afghans was one of the primary goals of Khaled Hosseini’s enormously successful The Kite Runner. The narrative covers the life of a boy who grows up in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion, takes refuge in Pakistan and then later the United States, only to later return to Taliban-led Afghanistan on a quest for personal redemption. Most post 9/11 writing by Afghans falls into the category of “burqa lit,” and, even though a number of these books, such as My Forbidden Face and Zoya’s Story were written by women who lived in moderate Islamic homes with men who did not abuse them, these books tended to focus wholly on the brutality of Taliban rule, which often reinforced a view of Afghan barbarity. Hosseini’s text, in contrast, portrays Kabul before the Soviet invasion in significant detail, giving Western readers a view of a moment in Afghan history when the city was “modern” and “civilized” by Western standards. Even though the novel takes a highly romantic and nostalgic tone, a stylistic feature that may be explained by Hosseini’s status as an exile from his homeland, these lyrical portraits of the city challenged assumptions that Afghanistan had been always a barbaric and medieval nation with no connection to modernity.
This is the novel’s greatest strength, but it is largely eclipsed by its weaknesses which include reducing the existence of the Taliban regime to the moral failure of its protagonist and the psychological flaws of his nemesis, Assef, the Taliban thug who is simply described as a sociopath. Unfortunately, though, the balance between Afghan specificity and “universal” (read Western) themes has been largely lost on Western readers. Meghan O’Rourke notes that most readers overlooked or downplayed those features of the novel that indicated “otherness”: “Study the 631 Amazon reviews and scores of newspaper features about The Kite Runner, and you’ll find that most fail to mention that the narrator converts from a secular Muslim to a devoutly practicing one. Hosseini’s story indulges this readerly impulse to downplay what is hard to grasp and play up what seems familiar” (par. 6). The fact that the novel did not seem “foreign” was precisely one of Hosseini’s goals. In an interview, he explained that “It goes back to telling a story that connects with people on a human level. When you do that, I think you get people thinking” (qtd. in Sandor). The dilemma, though, is that in order for The Kite Runner to depict Afghans as humans, as part of a universal, global community, they almost lost their Afghannness.
Conveniently, the novel’s presentation of Afghanistan’s problems ignores global geopolitics and the history of US manipulation. At a moment when US citizens had to grapple with terrorist attacks on US soil, such a tale suggested a division between good and evil that inevitably palliated the violent consequences of bombing Afghanistan and that made it easier to imagine that the invasion was a just response. Even though Charlie Wilson’s War and The Kite Runner were both interested in correcting Western misinformation about Afghanistan, by dealing with pre-9/11 Afghanistan, they risk leaving audiences ambivalent about whether or not the post-9/11 US invasion was a justified humanitarian action.
The story most ignored is the one of how the US invasion has brought a neoliberal spin to the Afghan bare state. As a corrective, Ann Jones’s journalistic memoir Kabul in Winter explains the new neoliberal economics of aid and military action at work in Afghanistan post-9/11. Aid, like war, is outsourced, allowing contractors to gain lucrative deals that refunnel US funds back to the private sector. She explains that since “the underlying purpose of American aid is to make the world safe and open to American business, business is cut in from the start” (242). And to prove the point that US policies have rendered Afghans as bare life without rights and without the ability to participate in the market, Afghan contractors are excluded from competing for these deals since, as one USAID official puts it: “they don’t know [US] methods of accounting” (243).
As I close this necessarily sketchy outline of the links between neoliberalism, the state of exception, and a new era of biopolitical practices, what remains clear is that the productive tensions over the public sphere and over Enlightenment commitments to rights and just wars that had existed prior to the rise of neoliberalism have been almost entirely dismantled. Market fundamentalism and corporate rights have become the rule that determines law with none, or virtually none, of the push back of humanistic, egalitarian, democratic ideals. As complex and contradictory as those ideals may have been, their absence under the neoliberal state of exception makes possible entirely new forms of human devastation and states of terror. Understanding the new era of the neoliberal state of disaster exceptionalism requires attention not just to changes in state policies, rights, and biopolitical practices, but also to the ideologies and counter-narratives that support and resist them. Attending to the links between neoliberalism, post 9/11 US imperialism, and the new biopolitical configurations these developments have caused is our next challenge.
- “War without Illusions.” The New York Times (15 Sept. 2001): 22.
- Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
- Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press: 2005.
- Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2003.
- Benson, Ross. “The City of the Damned.” Daily Mail (19 Sept. 2001): 11.
- Caputo, Philip. “20 Years of Training for War.” The New York Times (4 Oct. 2001): 27.
- CNN. “Transcrpt of First Presidential Debate.” http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/09/26/debate.mississippi.transcript. 10 Oct. 2008. Accessed 30 June 2011.
- Follain, John, and Rita Cristofari. Zoya’s Story. New York: Harper, 2003.
- Fowler, Corinne. Chasing Tales: Travel Writing, Journalism and the History of British Ideas about Afghanistan. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007.
- Giroux, Henry, and Susan Searls Giroux. Take Back Higher Education. New York: Palgrave, 2004.
- Giroux, Henry. The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004.
- Giroux, Henry. The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2007.
- Giroux, Henry. Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
- Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner. New York: Riverhead, 2003.
- Jones, Ann. Kabul in Winter. New York: Picador, 2007.
- Kaplan, Amy. “Where is Guantanamo?” American Quarterly 57. 3 (Sept. 2005): 831–58.
- Kipling, Rudyard. “The Young British Soldier,” http://www.everypoet.com/archive/poetry/Rudyard_Kipling/kipling_the_young_british_soldier.htm. Accessed 5 July 2008.
- -----. “The Man who would be King,” The Man who would be King and Other Stories. New York Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2007.
- My Forbidden Face. Directed by Latifa. New York: Miramax, 2001.
- Luttrell, Marc. Lone Survivor. New York: Back Bay Books, 2007.
- Macintyre, Ben. “What Happens in Afghanistan, They Say, Decides the Course of History.” The Times (15 Sept. 2001).
- Macintyre, Ben. The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.
- Mamdani, Mahmood. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.
- McClennen, Sophia A. “Reading Afghanistan Post 9/11.” The Impact of 9/11 on Arts, Entertainment, and the Media. Ed. Matthew Morgan. New York: Palgrave, 2009. 11–40.
- McClennen, Sophia A. “The Geopolitical War on U.S. Higher Education” and “The Assault on Higher Education.” College Literature 33.4 (Fall 2006): 43–75.
- Miyoshi, Masao. “Ivory Tower in Escrow.” Learning Places: The Afterlives of Area Studies. Eds. Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002. 19–60.
- Charlie Wilson’s War. Directed by Mike Nichols. Participant Productions, 2007.
- O’Rourke, Meghan. “The Kite Runner: Do I Really Have to Read It?” Slate.com. 25 July 2005. http://www.slate.com/id/2123280. Accessed 7 July 2008.
- Pease, Donald. “The Global Homeland State: Bush’s Biopolitical Settlement.” boundary 2 30.3 (2003): 1–18.
- Sandor, Rachel. “Author Khaled Hosseini on The Kite Runner: The RT Interview.” 5 Dec. 2007. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/kite_runner/news/1690461/2/author_khaled_hosseini_on_the_kite_runner_the_rt_interview. Accessed 7 July 2008.
- Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Trans. George D. Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
- See Pease’s “The Global Homeland State: Bush’s Biopolitical Settlement” and Kaplan’s “Where is Guantanamo?”
- For more on these trends, see Giroux and Giroux’s Take Back Higher Education, as well as McClennen’s “The Geopolitical War on U.S. Higher Education” and “The Assault on Higher Education.”
- See Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.
- See Giroux’s The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy and Bauman’s Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds.
- I developed some of these ideas about Afghanistan in a previously published essay, “Reading Afghanistan post 9/11.”
- In an example of the first practice, Philip Caputo, who had lived in Afghanistan for a month, wrote for the New York Times in early October 2001 that “The mountains soar to 20,000 feet in the east, and endless deserts lie in the west” (27). In an example of the second, Ben Macintyre wrote for the London Times that “Bloody war is sewn into the very land of Afghanistan, in the form of innumerable landmines” (n.p.).